White Christmas

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"White Christmas"

"White Christmas" is the most popular Christmas song ever recorded. Written by Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and featured in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, it soon inspired a large and loyal following. Bing Crosby (1904-1977), one of America's most popular mid-century crooners, sang the tune in the motion picture and also recorded it as a single. It sold so many copies that the die press used to imprint the records literally wore out. Crosby recorded the song again in 1947, once more in 1952 - as part of the sound track for the movie WhiteChristmas - and yet again in 1955. By 1968 listeners had snapped up 30 million copies of the song. For decades "White Christmas" reigned not only as the best-selling Christmas song ever recorded, but also as the best-selling single ever recorded. In 1997, pop star Elton John finally toppled this achievement with his musical tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind."

The Composer

Irving Berlin was the stage name of Israel Baline, the youngest child of a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States in 1893 and settled in New York City's Lower East Side. Although his own family did not celebrate Christmas, the composer later fondly recalled childhood memories of scampering over to his neighbors, the O'Hara's, to enjoy their Christmas tree and share in their Christmas goodies. Perhaps he called on some of these memories when he composed his nostalgic, best-selling Christmas song. Musical success was no stranger to Irving Berlin, however. He published 800 songs in his lifetime, many of them hits, and wrote hundreds more. Berlin possessed a knack for capturing in song the spirit of the times, an event, or a holiday, even one that he didn't himself celebrate. In addition to "White Christmas," some of his timeless tunes include "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "(There's No Business Like) Show Business," and "God Bless America."

"White Christmas," the Song

In 1940 Berlin began work on a series of songs for a musical comedy about a man who retires from show business to run a country inn open only on holidays. While working on the show's Christmas song, he remembered a winter spent in sunny Hollywood, where it never quite felt "like Christmas." He realized that the very difficulties he recalled formed the basis of a song. He fixed in his mind an image of jaded Hollywoodites sitting around a southern California swimming pool at Christmas time, reminiscing about the Christmases of their childhoods, and then put pencil to paper. The song as originally composed includes a first verse that speaks of palm trees and mild weather. Later renditions of the song usually skip this verse.

Although it generally took Berlin days, weeks, or months to write a song, he completed "White Christmas" in a single, all-night work session. Berlin, never afraid to sing his own praises, was so pleased with "White Christmas" that the morning after he completed the song he told his transcriber, "It is not only the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote" (Glancy, 2000, 65).

Holiday Inn

Berlin succeeded in selling his songs and story idea to Paramount Pictures, which turned them into the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. The movie gave "White Christmas" the public exposure it needed to become a hit. It featured Bing Crosby, who played a singer and dancer who moves to the country to run an inn open only on holidays. He falls in love with an up-and-coming singer, played by Marjorie Reynolds, who must choose between the retiring innkeeper and a flashy Hollywood-bound dancer played by Fred Astaire. Berlin composed a song for each holiday featured in the movie. As he liked to exercise a great deal of control over the presentation of his songs, he worked closely with the director, technicians, and actors, advising the singers on appropriate phrasing and execution for each song. Perhaps irritated with this constant stream of advice, the director asked Berlin to leave the set while they filmed Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." Berlin agreed, but then found that he couldn't resist hanging around. He hid himself behind some flats (panels used to dampen sound), but was discovered during the filming by a technician. Although the cast predicted that the film's Valentine's Day song, "Be Careful, It's My Heart," would become the most beloved song from the show, "White Christmas" soon entranced audiences. It spoke powerfully to American soldiers fighting in World War II, who were also dreaming of other, happier times. They swamped their radio stations with calls requesting the song. Back home, "White Christmas" won the Academy Award for the best song in a motion picture released in 1942.

While the American public dreamed along with "White Christmas," the idea behind the story for Holiday Inn fueled the business imagination of Kemmons Wilson. When he opened a chain of family motels in the 1950s he named it after one of his favorite movies, "Holiday Inn."

White Christmas, the Movie

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood movie producers decided to capitalize on the popularity of "White Christmas" by filming a remake of Holiday Inn which would again feature the song. In order to make sure the public knew that the movie revolved around the tune, they named the film White Christmas (1954). Bing Crosby once more played the lead role, this time with actor Danny Kaye as his sidekick. The two play old army buddies who are also song and dance men. They meet and fall in love with two singing and dancing sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. The foursome prepare a Christmas show for a rural Vermont inn run by a retired army general, Crosby and Kaye's former commander. Like Holiday Inn, WhiteChristmas gives Crosby two opportunities to sing "White Christmas," one at the beginning and the other at the end of the story.

A Personal Tribute

In 1967 New York City composer and singer John Wallowitch and a group of his friends gathered on the sidewalk outside Irving Berlin's house to celebrate Christmas by serenading the retired composer with his famous holiday song, "White Christmas," and a love song called "Always." These devoted fans kept up this yearly Christmas time tribute until Berlin's death in 1989. In 1983, the singers actually rang the doorbell and were invited in. Berlin graciously told them that their visit and performance was the nicest Christmas present he had ever had.

Further Reading

Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. New York: Viking, 1990. Crump, William D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Furia, Philip. Irving Berlin, A Life in Song. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998. Glancy, H. Mark. "Dreaming of Christmas: Hollywood and the Second World War." In Mark Connelly, ed. Christmas and the Movies. London, England: I. B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., 2000. Marling, Karal Ann. Merry Christmas! Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Menendez, Albert J., and Shirley C. Menendez. Christmas Songs Made inAmerica. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House, 1999. Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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